Unstated SOPs of Jantar Mantar protests
The protests at Jantar Mantar have always helped democracy and more also reporters in retaining their jobs.
Let’s start with the disclaimer that today’s column on no count intends to debase the recent protest by the Olympians at Jantar Mantar. It’s just a few extracts from a reporter’s diary who has covered such protests for long years.
The protests at Jantar Mantar have always helped democracy and also reporters in retaining their jobs. While leading a team of cub reporters at a national daily during the late 1990s and early 2000s, one would often advise them that in case there was nothing happening on their beat, they could visit the Jantar Mantar to get a story.
This advice did help the reporters to file their daily quota of copy but sometimes they also came up with stories that made it to the front pages. During those days, during the Parliament session, the protestors were allowed to march from Jantar Mantar to Parliament but were stopped outside Parliament Street police station, which also housed the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), New Delhi.
There was an unstated standard operating procedure (SOP) to be followed. The marchers would be stopped before Patel Chowk with barricades and cops in riot gear. The protestors would object and demand the right to move ahead. They would be pushed back, thereafter they would try to break through the barricade, and police would bring into use the water cannons. By now the waiting photojournalists would have had several frames of ‘riot scenes’ captured.
Next, the DCP would call the leader of the protest and offer to take him with a few others to Parliament to deliver their memorandum. If they agreed, the protesters would sit down calmly on the street. They would disperse after the delegation came back and ‘expressed satisfaction’, mostly at the goading of the accompanying cops.
The other option was that the leaders would not take the offer and the sloganeering would continue, the most popular being, “Har Zor, Zulm Ke Takkar Mein, Sangharsh Hamara Nara Hain (In the face of pressure and oppression, their slogan was to struggle).”
The DCP would come out make some pleas and finally order arrest. As soon as the DCP ordered arrest, the protestors would queue up to get their names enumerated in the police station’s arrest register and leave. Once a DCP had confessed that the most disciplined protestors were brick kiln workers, about whom they had feared carrying bricks to the protest site.
But there would be times when the SOP would go awry. The protesters on reaching Patel Chowk would try and push ahead. If they were successful, it would send the whole city’s traffic into jeopardy, and that’s the impact they would want.
This would then lead to real time riot control with the cops, much against their desire, putting their batons to effective use but also trying not to hurt anyone grievously. Sometime in the early 2000s, one such similar protest was led by a sitting Member of Parliament who also was a former Union minister.
On sighting him, the DCP rushed out, braving the water cannon burst and personally escorted the leader to safety. One thought the matter ended there. However, the leader arrived in Parliament the next day with his arm in a sling. Raising the matter of being caned during the Zero Hour, he forced the hand of the government to ‘suspend’ the DCP pending enquiry.
The enquiry gave chit to the DCP and his suspension was revoked. But in another instance, an ACP was not that lucky, he was mowed under the wheels of the water cannon vehicle. But then these are some of the prices one pays to keep democracy alive and vibrant.
Author and president, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice